Tevlin: This teen worries more about guns than a prom

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2013 - 9:29 PM
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Heather Martens, left, director of Protect Minnesota, and Sami Rahamim, 17, the son of Reuven Rahamim, who was one of six men who died after being shot by Andrew Engeldinger on Sept. 27, 2012, were at the capitol Thursday.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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He is 17 years old and not yet finished with high school, but he arrived at a meeting at Keys Cafe in St. Paul dressed in an overcoat, a suit and a tie. He carried a briefcase and a laptop and frequently checked his cellphone for important messages.

After all, you never know who might be calling; a state legislator perhaps, or maybe New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office. Perhaps even someone from the White House.

Sami Rahamim ordered a cup of coffee and a cookie. "Surprise me," he said to the waitress.

Keys, with its usual array of crusty regulars and politicos, seems like an odd venue for a teenager on a weekday afternoon. But what's normal for a high school senior whose life was upended less than five months ago, when a disgruntled worker murdered his father, Reuven Rahamim, and five other employees at his family's company?

The shootings at Accent Signage, the company Sami was being groomed to run, took his father and co-workers and forever altered the path of the teen's life.

So instead of hanging with friends or planning for the prom, Rahamim was meeting with a reporter and talking about his work to curb gun violence. Later, Rahamim would head back to the Capitol to attend hearings on gun legislation. On Friday, he got up at 5 a.m. and flew to Florida to speak at a convention. Tuesday, Rahamim will attend President Obama's State of the Union speech with Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.

Ellison knew Sami and his father before the shootings, and was impressed with him.

"He's a great kid, a positive kid," said Ellison. "He brought a tear to my eye when he told me about texting his father to be careful, and never heard back. Sami has risen to the occasion and channeled his grief into doing good. His father would be proud of him."

Rahamim was on his way to visit a former girlfriend in Madison, Wis., when he heard there were shootings near his father's company. He recalls a period of surreal horror and sadness that "can't be overstated."

"It was pretty clear I was going to have to grow up pretty quickly," Rahamim said.

Rahamim worked at Accent full time during the summers with his parents, so they were all especially close. He had already been accepted into the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, and planned to run the company when his parents retired.

Since the shooting, however, Rahamim has decided against business school and is considering either rabbinical studies or politics. He's uncertain whether he will someday run Accent.

After the shooting, Rahamim, his mother and two sisters frequently discussed gun issues and, to a lesser extent, mental health.

"We really don't know what was going on with him because he was never diagnosed," said Rahamim of killer Andrew Engeldinger. "We can speculate all we want, but what we do know is that a gun was involved."

For months, Rahamim grieved and made attempts to go back to a more normal life. Then the Newtown, Conn., shootings happened and "the discussion shifted in America and the door opened to me," Rahamim said.

Rahamim attended a rally by Protect Minnesota, a nonprofit seeking a solution to gun violence, and approached executive director Heather Martens.

"What can I do to help?" he asked her.

"I knew immediately who he was," said Martens. But before they could even discuss his role, Bloomberg's office called to see if anyone from the Accent shooting wanted to be part of a campaign for gun control. Rahamim went to New York, and while there did a video as part of the "Demand a Plan" to end violence campaign.

"[Rahamim] is old beyond his years," said Martens. "He's very bright, very passionate and very dedicated to getting meaning out of a meaningless tragedy."

Rahamim has been so busy on the issue, he's stopped going to classes and instead is working with a tutor to finish high school.

Meanwhile, he has absorbed statistics on gun violence and can recite them from memory. He is quick to point out that he is not anti-gun, but wants stricter background checks and laws that keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. He says polls show most gun owners agree with him, especially on background checks.

Rahamim is quick to criticize organizations such as the National Rifle Association, which he said used to favor background checks. "Now it's heresy to say that," he said. "They traffic in fear, and I believe they are mostly telling lies."

Rahamim's message isn't always welcome. Even though he's a teen who lost his father less than five months ago, some pro-gun members of the audience heckled him after he spoke at the Capitol last week, he said. It doesn't bother him.

As for those who might think his grief is being used by anti-gun groups?

"Of course I'm not being exploited," he said. "That's so silly. We have been so traumatized by violence in this country. For me, it's all about honing my skills and using them for good in the face of tragedy."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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